Rev. Augustine Tolton’s “venerable” designation will prompt the church to scrutinize his life and recognize it as one of “heroic virtue.” The designation also puts Tolton two steps away from canonization into sainthood.
Tolton was born to a Missouri slave family in 1854. Eight years later, Union soldiers helped the family escape to Illinois, where they settled in Quincy, a river city about 110 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Baptized a Catholic, the faith of his family's Missouri owners, Tolton studied for the priesthood in Rome because his race precluded his acceptance to a U.S. seminary.
Tolton assumed he would work in Africa, but once ordained at age 31, he was sent back to Quincy. He endured three years of racism in Quincy before moving to Chicago. He is buried in Quincy.
The Springfield Diocese, which includes Quincy, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, where Tolton ministered to the poor before dying in 1897, have been working on his canonization since 2003.
"From slave to priest. That's an amazing American story," said Michael Patrick Murphy, director of Catholic Studies for Loyola University Chicago's Department of Theology.
"He went from having lived amid the greatest sin in American culture to being a minister that would address that kind of moral crime, a fully scoped life. Prisoner to liberator," Murphy said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.